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3am Nights: Sustainable Pace and Then Some

While on vacation, I received the following text from a colleague. “Was another mad week with nights getting home at 3am and lots of people less than happy. But nothing to worry about. I’m on it.”

The text got me thinking about those 3am nights.

In the 20 years of software development projects, I’ve experienced a number of times when there was a need for more than the standard 40 hours.

There are those times when there is a defined time constraint and …

  1. A 1-week inception just didn’t capture a true MVP and the contingency built in wasn’t enough.
  2. The client infrastructure policies made everything around environments take longer than planned
  3. An epic, Phase 2 requirement became a high priority Phase 1 requirement

As the Project Manager, what do you do?

If you really cannot push out the date or reduce scope, then I discuss the options with the team. If you have good communication and planning practices on your team(s), then everyone should know the situation already.

In pretty much every situation I’ve been involved in, while the team was not thrilled about the extra time ahead of them, all were willing to get the job done and were committed.

Some would say that ‘3am nights’ do not comply with the agile practice of a sustainable pace. I think that’s true if it is a regular occurrence. But when it is a ‘one-off’, then I’ve found that a couple of late nights or weekends could be a good thing.

The camaraderie. The problems you solve. The connections you make. The things you learn. The client participation. That is what makes those times rewarding.

You should not be surprised by a required late night or weekend. If you are planning properly and tracking the work, you should see this coming and have conversations with the team about alternatives to working extra hours.

The following are some suggestions for handling those unavoidable situations:

#1 Be there with the team.

This is probably the most important item. If you are there with the team it shows commitment. If you are like most PMs I know, you could help in some way with pairing - analysis or testing. Or carrying water and removing boulders.

#2 Know what folks are willing to commit to.

If someone is not able to commit extra time, they should feel comfortable to leave when necessary. There are some folks with other responsibilities that they just cannot avoid. Don’t make people feel guilty. What I have found is that folks get creative in finding ways to be a part of what needs to get done.  For example, I’ve found that folks will reach out to family and friends to help support childcare issues.  

#3 Reward the teams’ efforts.

Providing food and drinks is mandatory. Something nice and not just pizza is required. Whether the drinks are alcoholic or not is up to you and your company. If you decide to bring in alcoholic drinks, do it later in the evening or weekend. It will impact productivity and moods. Try high-end energy drinks or nice juices, flavored waters, all special and they will not impair the team’s abilities.   Also, consider a team outing that would help celebrate the win.

#4 Know when to call it.

Monitor the team’s mood and productivity.   This is more subjective and involves knowing your team as opposed to objective metrics or statistics.  Listen to the conversations, watch the build monitor and check in regularly with QA to know when productivity starts to decline. After the rush of solving some really hard problems and getting some features in for the critical release, the team gets very tired and non-productive. Know when to call it.

#5 Make sure there are some fresh brains for the next day.

If this is a one-night event, and you need some support for ‘go-live’ the next morning, make sure you have fresh brains on hand. Maybe these are the folks that couldn’t be there all night.

Or if this is a multi-night deal, then think about splitting the team if you can.

#6 Plan for some tech debt.

When folks are under pressure, good habits fall by the wayside to expedite the work.  Make sure all stakeholders are aware of the possibility of extra time required.

#7 Retrospect

Once all the dust settles and folks are refreshed, conduct a targeted retrospective to get folks’ opinions on what was good about the extra time, what could have been done to avoid the work or what could have been differently.

If you do have to motivate or support a team through those over-time crunch periods, then I hope your experiences turn out as positive as mine have been.